Anthony Braxton Piano Quartet / Anthony Braxton

Piano Quartet, Yoshi's 1994

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Piano Quartet, Yoshi's 1994 is a four-CD collection focusing on the live dates Anthony Braxton's short-lived piano quartet played at Yoshi's Nitespot in Oakland, CA, in 1994. They mark the debut of Anthony Braxton as a pianist in a live jazz quartet setting, and were savaged fairly thoroughly by jazz critics when first issued. It's true that hindsight is 20/20, but in the case of Braxton's pianism in this band, those critiques were motivated, it seems, not by the actual merits (or lack thereof) of Braxton's ability to play the instrument, but by the same insensitivity, meanness of spirit, and complete lack of understanding that has followed him his entire career. This four-CD box covers four sets in the life of a band that included Marty Ehrlich on saxophones and clarinet, Joe Fonda on bass, and drummer Arthur L. Fuller. The material all comes from the jazz canon, many of the tunes standards, many others uncommon choices. The most important aspect of the way the music works between these musicians, and how it comes off on these recordings is how closely they follow the dictum Braxton uses in his own, and in performing his own material. Disc one opens with John Coltrane's "Exotica," a modal workout based around a four-chord figure. Ehrlich states the theme, Braxton follows with some outrageous vamping in the lower register, and the rhythm section sets the flow, fills space, and plays tags and flourishes wherever needed. The reading is fairly straight, with Ehrlich soloing primarily on the changes and keeping his harmonic nuances within the color range. Braxton begins what is to be on this set a norm; he challenges dynamics and drama and textures his solo with those moments, and with angular and scalar figures that point in the direction of the entire band rather than at himself as a soloist. This is where the early criticism came in. Braxton doesn't play piano like a soloist, though he most certainly is one here; he plays like the head of the rhythm section. But it is on Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'N You" and its proceeding tune, Mal Waldron's classic "Soul Eyes," that the quartet's M.O. really gets stated. From the open tonal figures in the Gillespie tune, Braxton establishes that this will be, as in his own work, a primary compositional palette to let others flow from. "Soul Eyes" comes directly out of "Woody 'N You" in the same way Braxton's major compositions beget minor ones in the same metric, procedural, or improvisational space (sometimes all three). On subsequent tunes in this set -- "Stablemates" and "Marionette" -- as well as in the other three sets on discs two through four, this is the case. Usually the first tune in a set will stand on its own as a way for the band to ground itself. These, like Dave Brubeck's "The Duke" and Miles Davis' "Nardis," are deceptive, however, and the key is in Braxton's solos. As Ehrlich weaves through one melodic statement after another, moving against the harmony of the actual tune in places, Braxton is already quoting what is to come either in his comping or in his soloing. Using wide percussive chords and shapely triads of contrapuntal harmonics, on set two he begins a setup where J.J. Johnson's "Lament" will become the primary composition from which Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica," "Star Eyes," "I Remember You," and "Along Came Betty" by Benny Golson all wind their way out of. It's remarkable, really, that each of these tunes can be contained in a tonal universe by the one root. It's one thing to hear Braxton do this with his own music, but to feel this pin from the classic canon is quite another. In this way each tune is heard not only as every other, but jazz in general is heard as an interloping music, capable of such linguistic force and echo that nothing in it remains fixed or finite. And then there is the playing itself. Certainly, Anthony Braxton is not the most gifted pianist in jazz, but it hardly matter because he can play like a serious jazz musician, and more importantly he can play as a composer who can hear the fluctuations of tone and timbre in the most minute segments of a tune's melody or harmony. In his soloing he tends to move off the cuff, chopping off a section or a fragment stated in the changes and moving it into its own direction, shaping it as an alternate structural framework on which the tune can either turn or be heard. This is what great improvisers do, and Braxton on a piano is every bit as deft at this as he is on a saxophone. His solos in "Lush Life," "Line for Lyons," "Body and Soul," and Johnny Mercer's "Early Autumn" create entirely new spaces for these classic tunes to inhabit. Whether it is by dynamic shading (where Braxton can hardly be heard and then shifts into a pounding frenzy of diminished ninths and augmented tenths) or chromaticism, where he takes Ehrlich's gorgeous counterpoint lines and weaves color balance, shade, and depth into them via trills and lower register rubato, the effect couldn't be more chilling. No matter which font of tonal inspiration this set reveals, this band never got to realize its full potential because of the various commitments and restless natures of its two principals. Nonetheless, this collection is more than a document; it is a development not only in Braxton's ever evolving and often confounding esthetic, but in the development of jazz itself as an interconnected, meta-textual music whose roots and branches are more deeply embedded into one another than we previously believed. The piano quartet has made a first step in dragging the roots out to be more closely examined in a driving, singing, swinging way.

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